There’s an extraordinary moment in Rosetta, the Dardenne Brothers’ Palme d’Or winning slice of grungy life from 1999. About 22 minutes in, Emilie Dequenne’s sooty faced street urchin turns her ballistics up to eleven, and savagely cusses out her mother’s would-be John, then immediately greets her romantic interest by tearing him off his moped and trying to kick the living snot out of him. It’s a stunning display of unfocused rage, and firmly establishes Rosetta as a young woman capable of shockingly violent hysteria; a baby-faced waif consumed by anger and frustration that’s set on a hair trigger.
The Dardennes’ latest, The Kid with a Bike, is a grueling 87 minutes of such moments, as the Brothers reassert their mastery of desperate stories about screwed up young people. Set once again in the environs of Liege, Belgium, the film introduces us to, and quickly immerses us in, the hardened world of Cyril (Thomas Doret), a ginger tweener abandoned to social services by his struggling, uncaring father (Jérémie Renier). Cyril has an idealized, loving image of his dad; a view completely at odds with the facts. He often escapes his foster home and scurries to his father’s old stomping grounds in a frantic quest for reunion, in clear denial that Renier has flatly deserted him.
On one of these walkabouts, Cyril encounters a sympathetic hairdresser named Samantha (Cécile De France) who takes an interest in the savage Cyril. Samantha eventually agrees to look after him on weekends, igniting a battle of wills between this angelic do-gooder and the bull-headed fireball she refuses to give up on. The sullen Cyril believes only his father’s lies; a stubborn fixation that threatens to destroy his one chance to escape a cycle of heartbreak, and return to something like a normal life.
In The Kid With a Bike, the Dardennes return to normal as well. After the more formal, traditional presentation of Lorna’s Silence (2008), the Brothers are back to their documentarian ways, with closely placed hand-held cameras and minimal in-scene edits the order of the day. They expand their palette a bit with the use of background music, but the dramatic orchestral themes are not programmatic, but serve more as overtures to the film’s various acts. And like Rosetta, Cyril is a wired bolt of jagged energy, constantly on the run from his rotten luck and his inner torment.
In fact, The Dardenne Brothers are the world’s best makers of action films, although their idea of an action film is very different from Hollywood’s. Their best work is abuzz with constant motion, as their downtrodden protagonists struggle to free themselves from the chains of their own lives. This motion metaphor is a constant throughout the Dardenne filmography, from Jérémie Renier’s late afternoon scooter idylls in La Promesse to Olivier Gourmet’s bounding of staircases in The Son. Here, Cyril’s bicycle is not only his sole means of fleeing his demons, but a rare tangible connection to the happy illusions of memory. Over the course of the film, he and his bike will be separated on a few occasions, due to theft and forgetfulness, bringing Cyril’s abandonment issues to the film’s swirling foreground.
His pursuit of the lost bike leads him to a patch of bushes — little more than an empty lot actually — which the filmmakers cleverly imbue with the dark mystery of an enchanted forest. It is in this weedy version of Pooh Corner that Cyril will face the film’s ultimate dilemma: will he reject the solitary aggression of his past or be reborn in the tender care of a new surrogate mother? The realization of Cyril’s metamorphosis is as fitting as it is simple, as the Dardennes’ expand their signature style with an unexpected and intriguing layer of mysticism.
The transfer, supervised by director of photography Alain Marcoen, is in the original 1.85 and is generally excellent without appearing overly fiddled with. There’s some slight murkiness in one night exterior scene, but that may be due to mixed color temperatures at the original location. The images are nice and sharp but avoid excessive enhancement. Struck from a 35mm interpositive, the film’s lack of grain is impressive; for a Dardenne production one could almost describe the look as glossy.
The 5.1 track is splendidly done, immersing audiences in the Dardennes’ typical envelope of ambient noise. The film’s brief musical interludes, adapted from Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, consist of strings and piano and are punchy, powerful and commanding of attention.
New conversation between film critic Kent Jones and directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Conducted in the Dardennes’ offices, Jones sits down with the brothers for thorough chat on all aspects of The Kid with a Bike. The filmmakers describe how the idea arose from a conference they attended in Japan on justice for juvenile offenders. They adapted a script written several years ago concerning a female doctor, and that character eventually morphed into de France’s Samantha. Other topics include casting, rehearsal techniques and several different versions the men concepted for the film’s ending. At 72 minutes, the supplement runs nearly as long as the movie, but Dardenne fans will find it fascinating.
Interview with actor Cécile de France
Miss de France gives an experienced actor’s point of view on working with the unconventional Dardennes, and the results are illuminating. Her main challenge was to constantly restrain and minimize, which she indicates ran counter to her theatrical training. She also discusses her month long internship at a Liège salon, where she learned the finer points of coiffure and served as her own hairstylist on the film set. 19 minutes.
New interview with actor Thomas Doret
In this six minute segment, Doret (who’s now well into his teens) describes how he was cast by responding to a newspaper ad, and the caring help he recieved from the Dardennes and fellow actor Jérémie Renier. The interview has some bittersweet moments as Doret seems to realize he may never have another opportunity to work on such an inspirational and creative project.
Return to Seraing, a half-hour documentary in which the Dardennes revisit five locations from the film.
An interesting look at the nuts and bolts of directing, as the brothers recreate the blocking techniques they employed on The Kid with a Bike. It’s also something of revelation to see the painstaking set dressing they undertook to give these barren settings a ring of authenticity. The Dardennes’ grew up in this neighborhood, and they discuss many of the changes that have occurred in their hometown over the last fifty years, and not all of them are for the better. A bit technical for the casual viewer, but industry professionals and film students will find this supplement a must-watch.
The film’s original French trailer is included.
A booklet featuring an essay by critic Geoff Andrew
This fourteen pager features attractive color stills, cast and crew credits and information on the transfer. Andrew’s essay both compares and contrasts The Kid with a Bike in relation to the Dardennes’ total filmography, and make salient points about the film’s fairy tale narrative elements.
The Dardennes offer Cyril a lifeline unavailable to Rosetta or Lorna, and that brings The Kid with a Bike either into the realm of patness or a fully realized work, depending on audiences’ expectations. One could make a case that the story more closely resembles a warm and fuzzy Hallmark TV movie than the Brothers’ typical gritty, hard-hitting appraisals of modern life. Perhaps the Dardenne’s, like most of humanity, have grown weary of a callous world that no longer seems to care for its children and decided to strike a blow for hope. Believing in hope can be a tough sell these days, but only a fool would bet against the magically honest cinema of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.